Director Joseph Lewis, perhaps known mostly as “king of the Bs”, worked at fast and furious paces on his films (not so out of the ordinary at the time), but the quality he managed to achieve in the midst of those breakneck cheaply-made productions, not just in the performances of his actors, but also in the look and feel of his films, is quite extraordinary. One of the things I love about Lewis as a director (in his finished products, and also how he comes across in interviews) is his obvious sheer love for the crazy pursuit, and the bravado it takes to get anything done, and how he seemed to relish the entire experience. Peter Bogdanovich interviewed him near the end of his life and Lewis’s joy still comes across. He didn’t take himself too seriously, but he sure took what he was doing seriously. I’m on a Joseph Lewis kick these days, and The Big Combo, from 1955, is one of his most well-loved film noirs. Gun Crazy is obviously his most famous (and rightly so – I’ll talk about that later), but there’s always something in all of his films to sink your teeth into, visually, or character-wise. The Big Combo looks awesome, every shot seething with atmosphere and emotion. Joseph Lewis got his start doing Westerns, and any time a scene was boring to him, he would shoot it through wagon wheels, to give the frame some interest, thereby garnering for himself the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe”. Producers would shout, “Oh Jesus, take those wagon wheels away from him, goddammit, not another wagon-wheel scene.” You can see Lewis’s intelligence and passion in how he frames each shot, the point being to keep things vital and good-looking, so that each scene is not just interesting because of its plot points, but because of how it looks. The acting is terrific, even down to characters who only have one line, and the script is great. What could have been your basic gangster film ends up being so much more. It’s a psychological study of obsession. Everyone here is obsessed with something.
I think Joseph Lewis, like all the great directors (and he rarely is spoken in the same breath as people like John Ford, Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, but I’m putting him in that lexicon for the moment) understood obsession. He made it his primary subject matter. Gun Crazy is a primal example of it, but Big Combo is there too. Mr. Brown, the gangster, (played by Richard Conte, in a suave slightly ominous performance that reminded me of some of Burt Lancaster’s roles) is obsessed with status, and being at the top of the heap. Leonard Diamond, the cop (played by Cornel Wilde) is obsessed with Mr. Brown, first of all, and has thrown the entire police force into a manhunt, against the advice of the commissioners and everyone else. But he is like a man with a bone. Through his pursuit of Brown, he has come to fall in love with Brown’s gun-moll girlfriend Susan (played by Wilde’s real-life wife Jean Wallace). Susan used to be a society girl, and something of a prodigy at the piano, but she has given all that up, and thrown in her lot with her gangster boyfriend, much to the bafflement of the world she has left behind. Why would she leave polite society and hang around with this thug? Ahhhh, but that’s because Susan is obsessed with something, too: the kind of sex she has with her gangster boyfriend. It’s dirty, it’s passionate, it’s fierce. Like Stella Kowalski, another society-girl tied to a man beneath her station because she’s addicted to how he fucks and how he gets those red lights flashing, Susan hates herself for being trapped, but she is putty in his hands. Mr. Brown knows how to push her buttons, and he does. Susan is a sour-faced girl by now, broken down by disappointment and loneliness, but when he touches her, even casually, she goes into a private realm of sex and pleasure that leaves her helpless. Mr. Diamond tries to lure Susan away from Mr. Brown, not only because he needs a witness against him, but because he has fallen in love with her. But could Cornel Wilde, with his slightly earnest look, serious and tense, ever please her the way her boyfriend pleases her? This is not spoken in the script, at least not overtly, but it’s there – in every look, every touch, every glance.
Big Combo also has the honor of being the first American film to at least suggest that oral sex is occurring. Ecstasy did it before then, way before, and was much more graphic, Hedy Lemarr having her first orgasm onscreen, in closeup. But that wasn’t an American film. Joseph Lewis said to Jean Wallace, trying to loosen her up for the scene (and Wilde was a producer on the film, which added to her insecurity): “Your boyfriend doesn’t stop when he kisses your earlobe. He doesn’t stop when he kisses your neck. He doesn’t stop when he kisses your tummy. He covers you all.” Wallace apparently said, “I cannot believe you are talking to me this way, but fine, I understand what you mean, I’ll do it, just make sure Cornel isn’t on the set that day, please?” Susan and Mr. Brown are having a fight, and he tries to calm her down. He kisses her roughly. She submits, then resists. He moves up behind her, she is facing us, and he starts kissing her on the neck, saying things like, “I want to give you everything … I’ll give you all …” You can see her sexual helplessness all over her face in that moment, she’s almost climaxing if you want to know the truth.
I loved how Joseph Lewis described this scene to Bogdanovich:
I actually wanted to show – again by impression only – a man making love to a girl in this delightfully unique fashion that we have all dreamt about or experienced. Now, how do you show it on film? Well, I had an idea: as you saw the two of them, mixed with kissing her on the lips and then on the ear, the camera moved closer and closer and closer and, as you came into a huge closeup of Nick Conte and Jean Wallace, gradually Nick’s head disappeared: first kissing her neck, then lower and lower and then, at the precise moment, Jean, who was icy – I think she was afraid to betray herself for fear Cornel would raise hell with her – but at that precise moment I envisioned, I went ‘uh-uh-uh’ off-scene, and that was recorded. Cornel never forgave me for it.
The scene is as graphic as you can get, even more so because you don’t see it actually happen. You don’t need to.
Joseph Lewis got in trouble with the censors because of it. One of the things his movies do is push back at the Code, which had been in place since the 1930s. Gun Crazy breaks boundaries all over the place, and Big Combo does, too. Lewis told Bogdanovich that one of the censors said to him angrily, “I can’t believe you have put this filth into the movie of a man going down on a woman.” Lewis protested innocence. “That is entirely your projection. I didn’t show it. You have supplied all of the emotion of the scene, as an audience is supposed to do. So don’t tell me I’m a filthy director.” The scene stayed.
Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play two of Mr. Brown’s goons. The heavies who do the dirty work. There isn’t a scene that they aren’t together. They are on stakeouts, they share salami sandwiches, they start to realize that they are being set up here, somehow, by their boss … only they aren’t sure how yet. Granted, they are not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. But their dynamic is set up to such a strong degree, that you actually like these guys, as horrible as some of their actions are, and when they finally are ambushed, and one of them doesn’t make it (Van Cleef), Holliman, lying on a stretcher, begins to weep with the loss of his friend, and the scene works, it works so well. His grief is real. He is nothing without his partner. He can barely speak coherently. Earl Holliman does a terrific job with a “nothing” part, realizing the opportunity here for creating a real character, with a backstory, and relationships. So many actors and scripts miss this. But here: everyone is allowed to be human.
The script sparks and glides, with lines like, “Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotels make better money than that.â
Obsession drives the three leads forward. Other characters move into the action. There is a great cameo by Helen Walker, who plays Mr. Brown’s wife, whom he has had incarcerated in a mental institution to get her out of the way. Mr. Diamond tracks her down, and she has been living in an asylum for 10 years, tending to the garden, and wants nothing to do with her past life. She is afraid. She tells Mr. Diamond: “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane and dead.” In Frances, Frances Farmer says, in the interview at the end of the film that if you are “treated as if you are sick … well, I guess you can become sick.” Helen Walker embodies that. She is a wreck of a woman. Her obsession is her flowers. It is the only thing that makes sense, and throughout her interrogation she keeps yearning to get back to them.
Obsession keeps us alive. Or it kills us. Either one. Let the chips fall where they may.
With a great climactic battle, involving Susan shining a spotlight on the side of the car into the dark warehouse to illuminate her trapped lover, and a final moment which is a complete steal from Casablanca, Big Combo is a great popcorn-movie, and shows what a movie looks like when it’s made by a man who is obsessed with the process itself.